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Crafting communal prayers

College chaplain Maggie Alsup reflects on the impact of writing prayers for a diverse community.

Photo by chiranjeeb mitra on Unsplash

Being a college chaplain is an honor that few experience. It is both of the church and completely different. Chaplains have a variety of students, faculty, and staff that we serve. We have various “flavors” of Christianity, spiritual folks, differing religious groups, and every viewpoint in between.

As the chaplain, you are considered the religious “expert” for the community. It is your task and mission to make the campus a place of welcome and belonging for all sorts of people and faiths. You are often the one who prays at events, leads worship experiences, and works to build relationships between and among the faith groups on campus.

When I run into potential students on campus tours, I often joke that they will come to know me as the one who always prays before school functions. While we laugh about that, it is a profound part of my role as chaplain. It is a remarkable thing to be given the honor of asking for God’s guidance, support, and care through all the joys, wonders, celebrations, and sorrowful moments on campus.

Crafting such prayers is a creative outlet, but it is also a daunting task. While Lyon College is rooted in Presbyterian heritage, we are an ever-expanding and diverse group. It is my goal every time I write a prayer for our college community, that everyone may find a way to link themselves to God, however they relate to God.

On a random spring day, a faculty colleague stopped by my office for a visit. This colleague happens to be Jewish and has helped our community celebrate and learn more about Jewish holidays and customs over the years. She and I have enjoyed the conversations, the inquiry of students, the communal support that is found in these moments and celebrations. As we were chatting, she informed me that she was planning on moving at the end of the school year and she wanted to get together because she wanted to let me know some things.

She told me she was honored by how I worked on campus to be inclusive, to offer others a way to connect with God that wasn’t the typical Christian response or way of doing so. It was freeing for her to see that a minister would be willing to do such a thing. She told me that she always felt like she was able to connect with God through my various prayers at events over the years — that she was able to find ways, to find that familiar to her language in my prayers, to connect with God. She was in awe that I was able to do this and grateful that our community celebrations didn’t adhere to Christ-centered God language, noting that it was because of this that she and others felt welcomed and included in our time of prayer at events. She felt included and valued in these prayerful moments in our community. And her relationship with me, as she put it, “restored her hope for Christians in the south.”

It isn’t always easy. It sometimes takes great crafting for a prayer to be inclusive, but it is necessary in a community like ours. We have many faith and religious traditions all linked together and we do our best to honor them and lean into these different understandings and expressions of God. When we do, we are able to learn more about how we connect to God through our own faith.

I often times wish that church members could experience what a day in the life of a college chaplain is like. The ambassador role that we play on our campus, the way we witness firsthand how welcome and hospitality can change hearts and minds, can expand the ways that people interact with God and see God at work in the world. Every church setting is different, but my wish for the larger church is that they would be able to move beyond and outside their walls, to connect with their neighbors of different faiths and see how their ideas and experience of God change through those connections. Because in those moments the church will learn and expand their understanding of God.

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